The story of Icarus is one that is often shared to remind us that having too much pride can be dangerous. Icarus’s father warned him not to fly too close to the sun in his wings made of feathers and wax, yet he did not heed his father’s warnings and he ended up drowning in the sea after his wings melted.
This sounds like a Greek myth to share with young children when they are not listening to their parents. While it may be a helpful story to share with children at times, I think of Icarus’s story in a different light. I picture it more like this: As Icarus and his father leapt from the palace window in which King Minos had imprisoned them, he did not mean to get too close to the sun. Instead, he accidentally got too close and he absolutely loved the feelings it brought him but just did not move away quickly enough. He experienced a moment of true fulfillment, and once someone finds that, it is harder to let go than one may think.
When a competitive athlete finally hangs up their cleats, their glove, or their pads, etc., society often tell us it will be hard to adjust to the “real world,” but nobody really tells us how hard it will be. Playing the sport you love, with people you love, at a place you love — that is true fulfillment, that is flying close to the sun and it is hard to let it go.
After I hung up my cleats, there were a number of older teammates that told me it would be a hard adjustment, but I honestly did not see how that could be. Sure, my favorite part of my day has always been whatever part involved training or practice, but I thought I would substitute that with my daily workout. It just did not seem like that big of a change. As a college athlete, you typically spend 30-40 hours a week practicing, doing strength and conditioning or traveling — and you go to class on top of it. So when you are thinking about working 40-50 hours a week, it seems pretty easy to a 21-year old mind. The part that everyone forgot to tell us, though, is that the moments of flying close to the sun are few and far between when an athletic career ends.
I mean, think about it. You go from having the opportunity at least once, and often twice, a week to make some spectacular play and hear people cheer for you after you do it. You have an opportunity to let the hours of training pay off. You have the chance to look at your teammates and be surrounded by people whom you know absolutely have your back. You even get lucky enough to play for a national championship sometime. Then, you transition into a day-to-day job where there are no crowds to cheer or big plays to make. You are just another worker.
While there is great pride in simply being a hard worker in whatever we do, I think it is a challenging transition to go from one of the few, to one of many.
Not only does this start to shift how we see and define ourselves, but it also changes how you perform. When you are a member of a team, no matter how many of your teammates are competing with you for a spot, you still cheer each other on — no matter what. Being on a team means making an unspoken, collective decision to put the betterment of a team first and to swallow our pride in order to do this.
The workplace dynamics tend to not work that way. Many employers see the value in having competitive, former athletes on their staff, but I think few stop to think about what made them great in the first place. Yes, a competitive drive gives an edge, but the motivation to keep that “edge” comes from the positive way it affects the teammates around you who are also cheering you on in return. On a team, being competitive is not selfish. It is done because it serves the people who play beside you. As I come to the end of my own graduate school path, I have spent a lot of time talking with different employers about job opportunities. A common theme is that most employers are wondering how to not only attract new employees, but also retain those they have. While I cannot speak for every graduate, I think I can speak for most of those who are former athletes when I say that we will probably thrive if we genuinely feel that we are part of a team. If you are a leader of a company and you happen to have former athletes (of any level) on your staff, then maybe there are ways you can challenge their competitive nature, but doing so in a way that does not help them alone, but also helps their co-workers.
If you are a former athlete who may have recently graduated or are about to graduate, I feel for you. I can only imagine the amount of people who ask you, “What’s next?” That question became one I despised after I quit playing soccer. When you are a good athlete, nobody asks you that. Most people are just excited to hear about a recent or upcoming game, and it is OK if you do not have the next step beyond sports figured out. As soon as athletics end, though, everyone is very excited about what is to follow. While this question comes from a loving place, I know what it is like to feel as if whatever you say will not be as impressive as answers you used to give. When you do not have your games and accolades to lean on, answering this question is really scary.
To those who are figuring out how to answer that question, I leave you with this: I have learned that most people probably forgot about any big wins you had or incredible plays you made, and they instead just see a young adult whom they have watched grow up. They are excited to keep cheering you on in your next chapter, whatever that may look like. Most importantly, I realized that it is OK to simply say, “I don’t know.” It may not be the coolest answer you have had to that question, but I promise you it is the bravest.
Unlike Icarus, we know that we are not meant to fly too close to the sun for too long. If we hog it, we do not leave the room for those behind us to have their time. Until then, though, if you still have time left in your athletic journey, enjoy every moment. And when it comes to an end, know that life is full of seasons, and there is plenty of sunshine to come.
E.J. Proctor Story, a 2014 graduate of Fike High, was the starting goalkeeper for Duke’s 2015 NCAA runner-up year, 2016 Elite 8 finish and 2017 Final Four finish. Currently the Duke record holder for shutouts and goals against average, she went on to play one season professionally with the Utah Royals F.C. after graduating from Duke. Now back in Wilson, E.J. is assisting with coaching youth soccer players and is completing her Doctor of Physical Therapy degree from Duke.